Two weeks ago, I interviewed Bill Arnold about his new book, Seeing Black and White in a Gray World: The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church’s Debate Over Sexuality. Go to that interview to see more summary of the book and Dr. Arnold’s thoughts about it.
Last week, I shared Part I of this review, with four things I love about Seeing Black and White.
This part concludes my review.
I said in Part I of this review that I had one disagreement with Dr. Arnold and that he had changed my thinking about one aspect of the sexuality debate in a way that I don’t think he intended.
Is the biblical debate really settled?
My disagreement with Arnold is about the state of the biblical debate. I’ll summarize his presentation first, then explain my disagreement.
Citing Christopher Seitz, Arnold says that we “have seen three separate and distinct phases in the church’s understanding of Scripture [on the issue of homosexuality]” in the past forty years.
He describes phase one as a time for reevaluating biblical passages on same-sex practices. Perhaps these passages had been misunderstood and misread. Maybe they didn’t condemn ordinary same-sex practices. Maybe these were addressing particular problems in particular cultures.
He describes phase two as a time when people realized the phase one arguments didn’t work. They accepted that “[t]he Bible really is consistently negative toward same-sex practices.” Instead, people in this phase pointed to things like the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as a model. If those church leaders could agree to accept Gentiles as converts without requiring circumcision, why couldn’t we make a similar move now regarding same-sex practices?
Finally, Arnold describes phase three––our current reality––as a time when people see the Bible as irrelevant on this issue. It isn’t able to take into account the newer development of “monogamous faithful homosexuality.” In this phase, supporters of same-sex intimacy simply regard the Bible as “a book of religious development, from one Testament to the next” [quoting Seitz]. But we’ve gotten past those points of development in our “enlightened modern times.”
Because of this, Seeing Black and White approaches the discussion about homosexuality as if the biblical debate is already settled. Arnold confirmed as much in our interview: “the church isn’t listening to the scriptural evidence anyway.” As a result, he focuses on showing why we should heed the scriptural evidence. He largely assumes that we already have agreement about what the scriptural evidence shows––an unqualified condemnation of homosexual practice.
From the discussions I’m hearing, I’m not sure this is an accurate read of the current climate. I see a lot of discussions that Arnold would call “phase one.”
I see a lot of people suggesting that the few mentions of homosexuality in the Bible were about particular problems in those cultures. Several people have asked me if Paul’s references to homosexuality weren’t just as culturally specific as his references to women wearing head-coverings in worship.
I wouldn’t give the book to anyone having those conversations and asking those questions. I think it starts by assuming answers to questions they’re still asking.
To be fair, Arnold doesn’t neglect this discussion entirely. He has an excellent example, showing Old Testament and New Testament writers at a roundtable discussing ethics. While many topics show progress and “deeper formulations” in the movement from earlier to later writings, the discussion of same-sex practices has a flatline consensus around the table. For my friends who aren’t yet convinced about the biblical position, they’ll need to see a lot more like that discussion.
For what it’s worth, I agree with Arnold’s position that the Bible is consistently negative toward same-sex practices. I just don’t agree with him that everyone else is convinced of that.
As he said in the interview, there are already some great resources that deal with this. Arnold cites Richard Hays’s excellent essay on Homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the New Testament along with Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice and Richard Davidson’s Flame of Yahweh. His roundtable example recalls William Webb’s argument in Slaves, Women & Homosexuals.
It may be too much to ask one little book to rehash all those arguments and advance the discussion. Just know that Arnold’s work can’t stand on its own. It stands on the conclusions already made in these resources.
For anyone who doesn’t come to the book already agreeing that “the Scripture clearly condemns same-sex practices,” I think it would be better to start with one of the resources linked above. If those convince you, then move on to Seeing Black and White.
How Seeing Black and White changed my mind in a different way than intended
In our interview, I shared this quote from the book: “[I]t can be argued that the church failed to influence culture in the 1960s, losing its voice and failing to condemn nonmarital sexual practices of all kinds.”
That quote has continued to ring in my head. The United Methodist Church’s statement on human sexuality says, “sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”
Dr. Arnold has convinced me that conservative leaders in the UMC have no right to a voice on homosexuality until they demonstrate a consistent voice on heterosexual sex. Among our leaders, ministry candidates, and ordained clergy, I suspect that most violations of our standards for human sexuality are heterosexual, not homosexual. Are we taking these as seriously?
If your church’s standards for membership, leadership, or employment treat homosexual and heterosexual indiscretions differently, you’re not taking a stand for holiness, you’re discriminating.
Until your Board of Ordained Ministry will just as quickly ask and remove someone from candidacy for having sex with his girlfriend as for having sex with his boyfriend, you have no justification for your position. This is to address only our beliefs on human sexuality. Perhaps we could go further, but we must go at least this far.
Maybe I’m wrong about this and we’re already taking seriously all issues of sexuality. But I’ve seen enough to believe that we have a double standard that turns a blind eye to many heterosexual indiscretions while railing against any hint of homosexual practice. This is indefensible.
If this is true, I think we’re fighting the wrong fight. We need to get back to a serious stance on heterosexual sexuality first, or we need to give up the whole sexuality debate at once. To fight for a hard-line stance on homosexual practice after we’ve given up that stance on heterosexual sex is hypocritical. We have no right to be taken seriously so long as we’re double-minded on this.
Perhaps Dr. Arnold would agree with all of this. If so, I would have loved to see more ink spilled on our “heterosexual problem.” But this may be again asking one small book to do more than it should have to do.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions. Though I’ve listed two issues here that I would have liked to read more about, as Part I of this review showed, I eagerly recommend this book to most people. Check it out at the Seedbed publisher website.
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8 thoughts on “Why Seeing Black and White is Needed (maybe more needed than Bill Arnold thinks) [pt. II]”
Actually I think most Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and local churches takes the issues of heterosexual sin quite seriously. I sit on our Board of Ordained Ministry and I can’t imagine a scenario where someone, in a known sexual relationship outside of marriage would be ordained. maybe you’ve missed all of the mandated sexual ethic’s seminars clergy are required to take or the safe sanctuary policies churches ( at least in our conference) are required to adopt.
We all know of clergy who, caught in a sexual sin, have either been asked to turn in their credentials, or be asked to go on sabbatical while they receive counseling. Here’s the difference. When caught in these situations there is usually shame and repentance so there is no need for grand standing or a trial.
I honestly believe that leaders and teachers in the church need to maintain the standard of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.” However, I found this to be extremely problematic in the local church.
In my last appointment before I retired, I discovered that one of our volunteer youth workers was living with her boyfriend. The youth often met at her home, and knew her living situation. I was still new in this appointment, but I felt strongly that this situation (which I inherited) was not healthy. So, I called this young woman into my office, and privately asked her to step back from leadership in our church youth program. She was LIVID. She “loved” the youth deeply and the kids “loved” her. She chose to make a big deal of it, and told the kids in the youth group why she would no longer be working with them. A few months later, this became an issue in the Staff Parish Relations Committee as they evaluated my first year of ministry. The volunteer youth worker’s mother happened to be a SPR member. I was not involved with these discussions. But at the conclusion, the DS asked me to consider retirement. After 24 years of ministry, I did.
As I reflect on my ministry, I now regret a number of the weddings I officiated. Most of the weddings I officiated at involved couples who were already living together. I remember one wedding that involved a couple who married the DAY AFTER the husband’s divorce became final. I didn’t know that until I signed the wedding license! It became obvious that I had offered the church’s blessing to an adulterous relationship.
Three or four pre-marital counseling sessions with a pastor is not adequate marriage preparation. I believe The United Methodist Church desperately needs to develop a better process–perhaps modeled after the catholic church’s pre-Cana classes. We should require a mandatory 6 month class led on a district level prior to a wedding. It should be primarily led by trained laity, and each couple should be given a “mentor couple” from their home church. The burden for pre-marital counseling should not fall entirely on a pastor’s shoulders.
Anyway, you are right on target with this post.
In my experience, the phrase, “Scripture is clear that X,” is often misused and sometimes abused. In cases of abuse, it’s a card that is played to avoid having to actually acknowledge the existence of alternative interpretations accepted by well-informed, properly motivated individuals. In cases of misuse, sometimes people say “Scripture is clear that x” when what they really should say is, “Scripture teaches that X ” or, “a person who understands scripture will come to see that the scripture affirms X,” but neither of these is the same as, “Scripture is clear that X.” The word “clear” implies that something is not just true but obvious. In this way, “clear,” unlike “true,” is a relative term–something can be clear to me but not clear to you. I teach at a Christian college where most students truly accept the Bible as authoritative but feel very inadequate at interpreting giant sections of the Bible. Moreover, most of those same students do find other passages to be easier and/or more clear, but it is not uncommon for them to be completely off in how to read even those passages they think they understand. As you say, it’s not exactly helpful to insist to such a person that “scripture is clear”–it simply is not clear to such a person and will not become clear by hearing such a phrase repeated.
Thanks Teddy for the critique. I agree that we need to be vigilant about all sexual failures, more so than we’ve been in the wider church and more so than we’ve been in the UMC. I agree that it’s discriminatory to focus on same-sex practices while failing to address the problem of cohabitation among church members, and perhaps even among candidates for ordination. We’re essentially together on this point. My little book is so focused on addressing Adam Hamilton and the current debate over same-sex practices, it may give the wrong impression. But my discussion of the loss of the church’s voice in the 1960s about heterosexual promiscuity is essentially the same critique as you’re making. The church failed then, and we have lost influence in the culture now.
Also, I see what you mean about phase one, and the need to continue the debate on the actual biblical data. Again, I may have been too focused on Adam Hamilton because he concedes in “Seeing Gray” that the Bible is universally negative about same-sex practices. In the biblical scholarship generally, few today argue that the Bible is ambiguous about same-sex practices. Two examples are Luke Timothy Johnson and Sylvia Keesmaat. I will engage their views in a forthcoming article this fall. But in general, they’re exceptional cases.
Most scholars seem to concede the point, and move on to phases 2 or 3. But you’re right; the UMC needs to re-engage these data as part of our debate.
We in United Methodism have not adequately explored the biblical data the way Presbyterians did when they were going through this debate. I’m happy to loop-back around and re-examine those data.
For example, my own reading and praying about this recently have led me to re-examine one particular word in two of the vice lists of the NT. A careful investigation of arsenokoites in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 suggests that this single word should settle the debate. This appears to be a neologism that specifically refers to same-sex practices. The CEB translates it as a participant “in same-sex intercourse,” and “people who have intercourse with the same sex.” A few have tried to make the case that Paul is talking about cult-prostitution and idolatry. But I find no evidence in the context or etymology that leads to that conclusion. It seems unequivocally to denote a specific sexual practice itself.
The significance of these vice lists, it seems to me, lies in the fact that none of us would highlight any of the other behaviors highlighted in these lists as something we should celebrate or ritualize: fornication, idolatry, adultery, prostitution, theft, greed, drunkenness, etc. Only in this single instance – arsenokoites – are we being asked to lift it from the list, consider it normative, and indeed, to ritualize it as God-blessed and God-ordained.
Perhaps this is the kind of exegetical work we need, and which you seem to be calling for. I would agree.
As a retired pastor, I have spent some time reflecting on my 24 years of ministry; and I must admit that I have some regrets. I did not offer adequate marriage preparation to engaged couples, and I married some couples that I should not have married. I always required a minimum of 3 “counseling” sessions before a wedding, and I think this is pretty much standard practice in The United Methodist Church. However, I am convinced that we are paying a price for being so lax about marriage preparation.
My ideal would be the development of a United Methodist version of marriage preparation classes modeled on the “pre-Cana” classes the Roman Catholic Church mandates. This should be done on a DISTRICT level in the UMC since so many of our churches are small and incapable of organizing such a quality program. Couples from all over the district could meet together with mentors from their own local church and trained leaders. In the RC, the six month long program MUST BE completed before a wedding is conducted in a Catholic Church. (I know this, because I once officiated at the wedding of a Catholic bride who wanted to be married BEFORE the baby arrived. The couple promised to continue in the pre-Cana class at their church, but wanted me to marry them.) In the meantime, the couple should be attending worship at least weekly in the church they want to be married in, and they should be encouraged/invited to join the church if they are not already members.
Many clergy in The United Methodist Church (including me) do not have the time or training to do an adequate job of marriage preparation; and we don’t like to force “requirements” on engaged couples. Apparently, some clergy see themselves more as LEGAL officials rather than as representatives of the Christian tradition. We need to develop a clearer theology of Christian marriage throughout “the connection”.
I agree completely. Seldom do I find couples even in my church who remain sexually pure until they are married. Our greatest battlefield on sexuality is within the walls of our church as people try to ignore the fact that our young people view living together before marriage as normative. We see it in all aspects of media. Our society has been brainwashed into believing that cohabitation is how one test drives a marriage. I wonder what we will try to “lift from the list” next?
I forgot to add, Thank you for the book, Bill! Well done!